Helen Burnett’s sermon for Creationtide on loss, value and coming back to the web of life:
I’ve been away on retreat recently on Lundy – a small island off the coast of Devon where the National trust have endeavoured to keep the human footprint to a minimum and biodiversity includes pygmy shrews in the sofa and seals in the sea! My surroundings and my reflecting on Jesus’ story of the lost coin and the lost sheep got me thinking: who, or what, is lost to us in the 21st century? Who or what is it that God, the good shepherd, the housewife is seeking out today?
Neither sheep nor coin may seem terribly precious to us today, but for Jesus listeners both represented something of great value:
The coin: the illustration Jesus was using was almost certainly a coin from the wedding headdress of a married woman – the equivalent to losing a wedding ring or worst still the opportunity to marry – so now you can see the level of value Jesus is trying to evoke.
The sheep: The village relied upon the flock, the sheep were their livelihood and the shepherd would risk his own life for the sake of one animal because the community needed the flock to survive in its entirety.
Today I could lose a coin or a sheep and carry on pretty as normal, which made me wonder what represents the most precious thing I could lose, apart from my loved ones? What is so significant it threatens my survival?
The most precious thing I could lose and, that scientists tell us may well already be lost, is our planet – this, our world as we know it. I would like to suggest that a vivid, contemporary equivalent to that flock of sheep, is the created world, is the ecosystem of this planet, that we as a species have strayed from, our behaviour threatens the survival of the fragile web of life set in motion at the big bang.
In which case we have turned away from God’s creation and wandered far from the fold; we who were tasked with being the co caretakers, co-creators of this planet ceased long ago to follow that calling and instead we have become the lost sheep, the lost coin, the ones who have become separated.
But all is not in fact lost. Todays gospel is here to remind us that God is out there, she is sweeping and searching for us, calling to us from the hills to return to the fold.
If the ‘flock’ is the ‘fragile web of life’ of which humans are just one integral part, then we need to be sought out and returned to our rightful, interdependent place, on the shoulders of the good shepherd, carried home in the palm of the hand of the good woman.
But before we get stuck in personal guilt trip let’s be sure to take humanity as a whole, in particular the post-industrial wealthy world that has emerged in our lifetime. Many of us have witnessed a sequence of events and inventions that has created a monolithic system that overrides and subsumes our individual capacity to effect change. That has commodified our world. We are all trapped in a system which relies upon petro-chemicals, fossil fuels, upon global banking and a system that creates vast disparities of wealth and opportunity.
I have a perfect personal example of this – the phone –which I carry everywhere. It represents all that connects us to the complexities of supply in this world, where the phone requires the use scarce mineral resources, is supplied by workers experiencing poor pay and conditions and is transported across continents. I know all of this and yet I continue to use it. As a pathetic sop to my conscience I buy a biodegradable bamboo phone case…
But listen to this – it suits the powerful for me to be distracted by my personal duties to the environment, to distract me with my choice of detergent to deter me from looking for the heart of the matter; for the heart of the matter is not in the recycling bin, or the beeswax food covers – important though all these things are. At the heart of the matter is a system that has broken the heart of God; a system that should break our hearts and that, has literally broken many of our brothers and sisters on the way to this moment.
So, I’m trapped with my phone and so much else, into a way of life. But even if I went back to live off grid in the hills of Lundy, I would not be solving the problem because it is all of us together who have to demand a change, who have to honour biodiversity.
We together are the 10th coin, the part of the wedding head dress that is lost. The marriage vow it signifies between us and God is torn.
The people of the world who are burying their heads in the sand and not listening are the lost sheep hiding from the God of truth. And yet God seeks us out even now, the God of the insects, the lichens, the plankton, the coral, the pygmy shrew; the fragile web of all things is calling out to us to turn again, to be carried back on the shoulders of our God towards a sustainable future that honours all life.
With God nothing is impossible.
With God, we might just have a chance, because God the good shepherd loves us to the end of the earth as he/she loves the penny wort, the stag beetle, the walrus, the lamb, the factory worker in Bangladesh, she loves them all to the ends of the earth. If we can see that, if we can join in with that love and turn towards it with hope in our hearts, then we might be in with a chance of joining in with the purposes of creation.
It is this belief, in a call to reconnect with our flock, our earth, to honour the blessing of biodiversity that has caused hundreds, maybe thousands of people of faith, to plan to converge on a bridge in London on Monday October 7th, to stop the traffic and set up a peaceful, blockaded ‘Bridge of Faith’.
We cannot change the world alone, we cannot change the world without disrupting it just as Jesus showed us to disrupt, without breaking the strict laws about how to behave that keep us suppressed just as the pharisees’ laws suppressed Jesus contemporaries.
We did not damage the planet alone, we did not stray alone and we cannot mend it alone, we have to do this together, we have to recognise first as individuals, then in our communities, then globally, that we have strayed, and then we have to take that message to the places of power.
God’s people are the people who will make a stand, the people who will follow in Jesus footsteps and walk away from the desolation of Jeremiah by challenging the laws that damage life, by confronting the systems that break the bonds of creation, the ones who will allow themselves to be found – it is their prophetic voices that you will hear in London in October – you may not be able to join them but I call upon you to support them in prayer, visit them if you dare, talk of them with your friends, speak well of those who seek change and who act in peace for God’s peaceable kingdom and honour the blessing of biodiversity.